It’s Sunday! A day for long lies, fry ups, roast dinners…just kidding, I’m working instead. Ha, ha ha…*sobs*. Anyway, I digress. Sunday is also book review day, with today’s special subject being Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig.
This review/ discussion on Reasons to Stay Alive may be more of a nonsensical stream of thoughts opposed to a review, because every time I think about this book my mind becomes full of all the different points I want to raise and all the different aspects of this book that I love and I don’t think I can summarise it well. I’m going to try and do this book as much justice as I can, bear with me. This is also going to be a long one, I’d suggest grabbing a cup of tea, maybe a custard cream, a comfy seat, or a dog to cuddle. Any would suffice. Let’s crack on!
I want life. I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it. I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt. I hate depression. I am scared of it. Terrified, in fact. But at the same time, it has made me who I am. And if – for me – it is the price of feeling life, it’s a price always worth paying.
Reasons to Stay Alive is about making the most of your time on earth. In the western world the suicide rate is highest amongst men under the age of 35. Matt Haig could have added to that statistic when, aged 24, he found himself staring at a cliff-edge about to jump off. This is the story of why he didn’t, how he recovered and learned to live with anxiety and depression. It’s also an upbeat, joyous and very funny exploration of how live better, love better, read better and feel more. (Goodreads Summary)
This is one of those books where I will always remember where I was when I read it and what was going on in my life in between the pages. Occasionally in my life, a book will come along that touches me in such a profound way and changes me more than the rest (significant ones to note include To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Of Mice and Men and The Wee Free Men) and I will remember everything about this experience, whether it be how my life was at the time, or what the book did to change me. I picked this book up on a whim, reading the premise I realized that I had never actively read a book surrounding this topic, despite relating to it quite overwhelmingly. Once I’d paid for it, I headed down the main street to a comfy and cosy coffee shop, bought a coffee, found a sofa and started reading. I would like to at this point apologise for disrupting other coffee shop goer’s days by sitting crying in the corner from my little nook. I read maybe a few pages before I started to cry. This book was relatable and validating for me from the first chapter. I loved this book unconditionally.
This book was both a saving grace, and a hauntingly true depiction of what mental illness can be. Matt Haig discusses stigmas, societies influence on mental health, his experiences, the different forms of mental health, whether conventional or unconventional, the seen and the unseen symptoms, the stereotypes and the moments in life that got him through and the things that he treasures most about life. These messages and themes are addressed through beautiful prose and uplifting passages which provide motivation and inspiration to get through the hard times, while still being breathtakingly honest.
One of the things I loved about this book is how it does not try to romanticize or in any way disguise how truly awful and infuriating depression or anxiety can be. It can take countless forms, and the sufferer has no control over this and how it manifests. Haig discusses how he felt and how even things such as leaving his partner to go to the corner shop alone were near impossible to complete. Haig never tries to sugar coat how he felt, and it is oddly refreshing. One of the pressing and overarching stigmas in society today is that people romanticize mental health, and see it as a ‘quirk’, or as attention seeking and something people can snap out of easily. There is often a misunderstanding of mental illness and what it is, and a lack of misunderstanding leads to misconceptions. While it is an undoubtedly hard battle to face, Haig states plainly what it is: hell. Something that you can’t necessarily fix, but can manage, and live through and conquer every day. While doing this however, Haig stresses that there is no one way to be depressed or anxious and no textbook or pass or fail criteria as to how depression or anxiety exists. It just is, and it can manifest itself in countless ways, both physically and mentally. One person’s experience of depression does not determine whether they truly are or not. No two panic attacks are the same. No two people are the same. This was a very important theme throughout the book for me, and comforted me in a sense. As someone who has had experiences in the past provoked by circumstance, and have also struggled to a degree with mental health, I found this to be a validating aspect, as I feel the need to explain why how I felt at a low point is just as significant as somebody else’s experiences. This book taught me that the struggles that I’ve had are just as important as anybody else’s, and just as real.
“There is no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are.” (Page 4)
What I also really admired about Haig’s depiction of mental health is his honesty in sharing that he has never fully overcome it, and that it sometimes bubbles up to the surface again, despite what may be happening in his life. I appreciated this because I think people feel a lot of pressure to cure themselves and once they’ve come out of a bad bout of depression, if they are ever experiencing feelings reminiscent of their worst moments, they are fearful of what it means and they almost may not allow themselves to be unhappy or feel an urgency to get back to normal. It is of vital importance to acknowledge that depression can come in waves, as can anxiety, as can anything, and that although fighting it is important, it is also important to understand the battle you’re facing and that it is okay to not always be okay.
“Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.” (Page 194)
Haig also emphasizes that no matter how good your life is, or the people you have around you, mental illness can still effect you. He mentions this idea quite a few times throughout the book, and I thought it a very important message. He touched on the idea of authors, artists and other celebrities who may lead a privileged life, but still suffer or suffered from depression. He discusses how this is oddly comforting to him, as although these people suffer, and may suffer daily, they manage to live their lives and succeed still. I think in regards to mental health, people often don’t understand why a person who is privileged or ‘doesn’t have a reason to be unhappy’ feels depressed. When I think of myself for example, I think about how I feel the need to justify my feelings or what I’m going through, because I should need to have a reason for why I feel down or anxious about something. However, Haig emphasizes that this simply is not true, and I really appreciated that. He reiterates time and time again how depression can hit you unexpectedly, and can effect anybody. While this is a scary thought, it is reassuring in a sense as so many people are living with mental illness, you are never truly alone.
“It can affect people- millionaires, people with good hair, happily married people, people who have jut landed a promotion, people who can tap dance and do card tricks and strum a guitar, people who have no noticeable pores, people who exude happiness in their status updates- who seem, from the outside, to have no reason to be miserable.
It is mysterious even to those who suffer from it.” (Page 15)
One of my favourite chapters in this book is titled ‘The World’. It had me sitting and thinking and contemplating everything, as it addresses the impact that society has, not on how mental health is viewed, but on how it is a contributing factor into people’s struggles. Haig suggests society in part is designed to bring people down, and remind them of shortcomings and what is missing from their lives in order to exploit them and get them to consume. This is a scary, but a true point, and one that could spark a great deal of fascinating and controversial discussion regarding privilege and consumerism. Here for it!
“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?” (Page 181)
“To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business” (Page 181)
I loved the way this book was formatted, in that it had very short chapters covering different topics surrounding mental health. Some took the form of inner dialogues between Haig; past, future or present. Some took the forms of lists, others a paragraph long. It broke the book up into consumable sections, and I found this far easier to read, as I often took breaks from the book in order to sort through everything I’d read and how it made me feel. Some chapters read similar to an essay collection on a specific topic, so while he tackled mental health from countless viewpoints, topics and angles, they all knitted together amazingly well. One part of the book, which again I felt made it more interactive and relatable and accessible, was that Haig consulted Twitter users and got them to share their #reasonstostayalive.
“@GoodWithoutGods #reasonstostayalive Because 7 x 10^49 atoms won’t arrange themselves this way ever again. It’s a one-off privilege.” (Page 208)
Possibly the biggest appeal of this book to me was how beautiful the writing is. Haig delicately crafts emotive and touching prose, which often had me in tears. I am a sucker for a quote worthy book, and I feel that everyone needs to read this for that reason. There are so many passages in this book that I want to write all over the walls, belt out to passersby on the street, share with loved ones who are struggling, and those who aren’t. This is the first and only book I have ever annotated. Why is that significant, you ask? While I was reading it, I knew there were passages that I did not want to forget, ones in particular that hit me hard and stunned me and quite frankly, influenced a change in perception for me. I decided that highlighting as I went meant I could look back on the book without necessarily rereading the whole thing, but would allow me sink back into the feeling I first had when I read said passages. That being said, I will be rereading this time and time again, whenever I feel I need a guiding hand, or a comforting reassurance.
“Minds have their own weather systems. You are in a hurricane. Hurricanes run out of energy eventually. Hold on.” (Page 112)
“You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view from a high place and not assess the likelihood of dying from falling. There are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.” (Page 113)
“If you go deep enough under a tidal wave the water is still.” (Page 118)
“Depression is also…
Smaller than you,
Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but- if that is the metaphor- you are the sky.
You were there before it. And the cloud can’t exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.” (Page 175)
“You need to feel life’s terror to feel its wonder.” (Page 218)
“How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.”
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe.” (Page 228)
The above quotes are but a selection of my favourite lines and passages from this book. I would honestly encourage everybody -whether you have been or are a sufferer of mental health or not- to read this book and let it capture your heart and thoughts. It provides so much to think about and so much to relate to and is truly comforting and inspirational. I have recently gone through a rough time, which I thought would maybe set me back, but I found myself reaching for this book for reassurance, and I could never thank Matt Haig enough for that.
I hope you all enjoyed this rambly and unstructured review. I hope I have managed to shed some light on how fantastic this novel is, and if even one of you lovely people reading this picks it up I will feel I have done some good. This was a very emotional review for me to write and means a lot to me, so I hope you have enjoyed this, and my passion for this book has shone through.
If you are struggling with mental health, are having a bad time, feel anxious, feel okay, feel like you don’t want to get out of bed, feel like you can’t wait to get out of bed and go and experience what life has to offer…I’m thinking about you and I wish you all the best.